Cross I Am Legend with The Ten Commandments and you’ve got The Book of Eli, a genuinely religious parable that inherently rebukes pointless end-of-the-world movies like The Road. This time there’s a purpose to the post-apocalypse: Eli (Denzel Washington), one of humanity’s survivors, is heeding the word of the Lord to protect the world’s only remaining Bible and bring its teachings to the West.
The Book of Eli works just fine as an action blockbuster, but it’s much more than that. Eli, who can smell lurking “highjackers” determined to rob and kill him long before they get close, is fierce with a machete — the movie is as bloody as any other contemporary R-rated kill-or-be-killed flick — and his fearless strides across the wasted scapes of a broken and infected world are reminiscent of great cowboy movies. He even walks into a small town that looks like the set of one of those backlot Westerns like High Noon.
The chief of this evil place is Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who is seen reading a book on Mussolini, and not because he’s bored. He already wields absolute authority over his little village, but using Il Duce as a model he hopes to become ruler of what remains of the planet. He has sent his illiterate henchmen out into the world with orders to bring back every book they can find. But there’s only one book (besides the Mussolin biography) that matters to Carnegie: The Book. Eli’s Book. Carnegie has heard that this volume can change the world because of its persuasive effects on people, which Carnegie hopes to harness to his own ends. But Eli isn’t giving it up.
Here the movie springs a major plot leak — Carnegie captures Eli, who surrenders to gunmen and spends a night in Carnegie’s jail cell. Carnegie sends first his girlfriend (Jennifer Beals), who is blind, and then the girlfriend’s sexy daughter (Mila Kunis of Forgetting Sarah Marshall) to Eli’s cell to find out who he is. But wouldn’t Carnegie have ordered his men to search Eli’s belongings? The wanderer carries a single backpack. It wouldn’t be hard to discover that he has the world’s only known copy of the Bible.
Yet Eli escapes and in a searing shootout scene proves to be a better shot than Carnegie’s henchmen. A much better shot: there is something about Eli that makes bullets miss.
This plot — The Good, the Bad, and the Holy? — harks back to many a classic actioner, and the third-act revelations are particularly satisfying. But what’s most effective about the movie is its sincerity. Washington, the son of a Pentecostal minister who in a Beliefnet ranking system comes in second only to Mel Gibson among Hollywood’s most powerful Christian celebrities, doesn’t play Eli with a wisp of irony or jokiness. Eli lays out the case plainly: He heard a voice inside his head that gave him his mission. He says he knows who he heard, he knows what he heard, he knows he’s not crazy, and he knows he never would have made it without divine help. He reads the Bible every day and can quote scripture by heart. “That’s beautiful,” exclaims Kunis, whose character is illiterate, when she hears a sample passage. He also quotes a passage about having the strength to carry on. The Kunis character asks if that is from The Book. “No,” says Eli. “It’s Johnny Cash. ‘Live at Folsom Prison.’” God, guns, and Johnny Cash? Blessed be this movie.
Recall The Road, in which a man and his son move ever southward across a destroyed planet for no apparent reason, and The Book of Eli seems like — well, a revelation. Reintroducing God into the equation makes the scorched earth scenario much more interesting because it promises a rebirth, gives a meaning to the destruction of civilization as the crisis that, however painful, must happen to bring about salvation. Secular viewers may cringe — can’t we have more wisecracks and nihilism, please? — but The Book of Eli is going to strike at the very center of the hearts of viewers who have faith in the God of the Bible.
For audiences who wish there were more movies that were inspired by the Bible, movies like Ben-Hur or The Greatest Story Ever Told, but have come to doubt Hollywood could ever make a big-time movie (sorry, Kirk Cameron, but you’re not the star Denzel Washington is) about it, The Book of Eli is a godsend.